The more things change among Notre Dame’s receivers, the more they stay the same. A year after the Irish returned a total of 45 receptions among their receivers from the previous season, they have now turned over so much of the position group that only 44 receptions return from 2020.
Of course, that worked out alright for Notre Dame in 2020, averaging 37.7 points per game in the regular season.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The back-to-back years of turnover among Irish receivers arises due to differing circumstances. A year ago, Notre Dame needed to replace talented stalwart Chase Claypool and reliable slotman Chris Finke. The 2019 passing game had not needed to rely on much else, particularly not when including tight end Cole Kmet. Add in Kevin Austin’s unspoken suspension and hamstring issues for Braden Lenzy, and the returning Irish receivers had neither needed to carry the offense nor had continued opportunity to.
Yet, those names were not the ones that pushed Notre Dame in 2020.
Instead, Javon McKinley caught 31 more passes than he had in 2019 (42 catches for 717 yards and three touchdowns), and Northwestern graduate transfer Ben Skowronek added 29 receptions for five scores. The pair of broad targets provided Ian Book the hands necessary to reach 10-0 in the regular season.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Of course, leaning on McKinley and Skowronek was not enough to beat Clemson or Alabama when it mattered most. Particularly against the Tide, the lack of consistent downfield Irish threat stood out as a differentiator between the best and the 127 other teams in the FBS.
“We have to continue to find more playmakers,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the Rose Bowl loss. “We’ll keep working at it. We’re committed to doing it, and we’re not going away.”
Finding more playmakers in 2021 will begin with fifth-year Avery Davis, the former quarterback-turned-cornerback-turned-running back. With 24 catches and 322 yards in 2020, Davis should be an unquestioned starter come Labor Day Eve in Tallahassee (179 days). His two catches on Notre Dame’s final drive in regulation against No. 1 Clemson on Nov. 7 placed Davis in Irish lore for years to come, and that kind of clutch performance resonates within a locker room and a depth chart.
But who will join Davis is something to wonder at length. Remove his two dozen catches, and no returning Notre Dame receiver had more than seven last season. Even entering 2020, four receivers eclipsed that. Now, rising senior Braden Lenzy’s seven catches for 63 yards last season, matched by classmate Joe Wilkins, lead the returning roster. Lawrence Keys also had five snags for 51 yards.
The current vacuum comes more as a result of injuries than of previous dominance, a la Claypool, though reliance on an athletic tight end has remained a constant through these years of receiver churn.
Lenzy’s flashes establish him as a presumed starter along the field side of the alignment, but his hamstring issues once again kept him to only 144 snaps in 2020. Counting on Lenzy to play a primary role in an offense tempts the proven logic of “Hamstring fools me once, shame on you. Hamstring fools me twice, shame on me. Hamstring fools me thrice, well, we should all know better.”
A similar thought process then applies to Austin’s availability. Missing 2019 due to suspension and then 2020 to a broken and re-broken foot does not elicit the same concerns of a recurring pattern, but unavailability is unavailability, one way or another. And that will continue for Austin this spring, as his mid-January foot surgery will keep him sidelined.
For both Lenzy and Austin, McKinley’s template and patience hold merit. He went four full years between playing meaningful snaps. Lenzy has seen more sporadic action, but Austin has not played consistent football since 2017, taking only 25 snaps in 2020. Idling for that long could be a red flag, but McKinley overcame it in his final season, so there is at least some precedent of it being rendered more superficial caution than anything else.
There is a litany of other options: Wilkins, Keys, rising sophomore Jordan Johnson and early-enrolled freshman Lorenzo Styles primary among them. But even when the Irish have not returned proven commodities, they have had inclinations of who would become them. In 2021, that should be the heralded recruiting class of 2018, led by Lenzy and Austin.